This photo was taken last month. If the location doesn't look familiar, perhaps that's because it's Douglas Avenue in Wichita, Kansas. “Back in the day,” teens took to this busy thoroughfare to hang out, drag race, and hook up. But last month, a reunion was set up on social media – “Cruising Douglas: Quarantine Edition” – until police shut it down.
As Denise Neal reports in the Wichita Eagle, nobody was “Draggin' Douglas,” but the crowds on the street forced local authorities to take action. Interestingly, those who stayed in their cars were practicing social distancing. After all, what could be safer than being inside a 3,000 pound rolling machine?
In its own way, this ad hoc street event may have been a harbinger for what is to come. More and more, consumers are discovering – or maybe rediscovering – the safety and privacy of their vehicles.
What a difference a global pandemic makes.
If you've been to CES during the past five years or you've tuned into our webinars, you know one of the leading trends has been autonomous vehicles. Most of the biggest automakers have invested billions into the development of cars that drive themselves, shared mobility, and similar trends that promise to impact major metros and the ways in which people get around.
One of the anticipated results of all this autonomy was more ride-sharing (think of the technology as Uber Pool vehicles without drivers), leading to a time when there would be fewer vehicles on the road.
But automakers are now rethinking changing trends. And last week, Ford slammed the brakes on its autonomous ride service until 2022.
Back in 2017, the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker invested $1 billion in Argo AI, an autonomous technology company.
But as TechCrunch recently reported, Ford made the revelation in their recent quarterly earnings call, attributing the decision to our rapidly changing lifestyles since the onset of COVID-19:
“Understanding customer behavior is a critically important part of building a new mobility service built around trust and making people’s lives easier. Taking the time to research changes in customer behaviors provides Ford with an opportunity to evaluate and potentially change our go-to-market strategy to meet new consumer demands.”
Add to that, there's been considerable data over the past few years suggesting Millennials are much less interested in owning cars, and you can see why there's been some panic in Detroit – along with Tokyo, Frankfort, and Geneva, and other automotive centers around the globe.
This trend among young people was earth-shaking, especially to those of us who live in the Motor City. Many teens have not made it a priority to get their driver's license. The thought of buying an expensive car, insuring it, maintaining it, fueling it up for $4 a gallon, and having it sit around most of the time was not appealing to most Millennials nor Gen Z's.
But that was then. This is now.
Perhaps being cooped up with mom and dad and assorted siblings during this stay-at-home period has changed all that. Now, young people can't wait to get the hell out of the house, and have a little privacy (and safety) in that last bastion of solitude and privacy – the car.
One of the toughest parts about the COVID-19 outbreak for broadcast radio has been the “flattening of the morning drive curve.” As so many have been isolated at home and/or lost their jobs, that daily commute in the a.m. hours is a shadow of its former self.
Add to that the very real possibility that when the threat has passed, many will still be working remotely from their kitchen tables, spare bedrooms, and basements. What will become of that massive morning commuting curve which has led all other dayparts since radios were installed in cars?
Satellite radio is experiencing many of these same problems, worsened by an even greater percentage of their subscribers who only listen when they're in a vehicle. Even though consumers can now listen to Howard Stern, Lithium, or Classic Vinyl on Amazon devices in their homes and on smartphone apps, many simply aren't aware of these options and/or have gotten used to only turning this service on when they get behind the wheel.
But there may be a silver lining here, especially for broadcast radio. While platforms like Uber and Lyft are experiencing the worst of all possible worlds, many people are now pining to jump in their cars and go somewhere. And after being cooped up with the same family members for going on two months, the solitude of the car seems like a luxurious getaway right about now.
Soon, cars will be rolling off assembly lines, as GM plans to institute new hygiene and distancing standards on their assembly lines as they prepare to start rolling again in less than two weeks.
And a majority of states in the union are now experimenting with various levels of “re-opening,” a sign many consumers will soon be back in their cars, trying to transition back to the lives they led just a few short weeks ago. And that should mean an influx of audience for radio's morning shows, as well as retail businesses excited to get the word out.
This increase in “movement” is something the telecom companies had already started noticing last month. So have researchers at the University of Maryland. Just after the Easter holiday, Americans started moving again. The study noted an 18% reduction of people staying home nationwide.
And now a global research study taken in early April from Capgemini shows among those potential car buyers, 35% say they'd consider purchasing one in 2020. Covered by Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press auto critic, the data shows the U.S. average is close to these worldwide levels. And surprisingly, those under 35 years of age are even more likely to consider a new car – a majority of whom have never owned one.
Just don't make them walk into a dealership. Nearly half of Americans (48%) in the Capgemini study say they'd rather avoid the showroom altogether, underscoring the rising popularity of online transactions from rising brands like Carvana.
What's behind all this data? In the middle of a global pandemic, safety is becoming the key driver of decision-making. And according to this research, three in four of those considering buying a vehicle point to greater hygiene in their own personal cars. And two-thirds (68%) concur having one's own car reduces infection – especially over mass transit and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
For broadcast radio sellers, this suggests a new challenge, as well as a new opportunity. Car dealership remotes may not have the same appeal they did back in January when the goal was to bring as many bodies into the showroom as possible.
In our pandemic-influenced world, a key will be to drive traffic to a dealership's website or landing page. These local enterprises will need to rethink their entire selling experience, starting with necessary steps to move buyers to the web and/or go to great lengths to create safer and more hygienic showrooms. How will they get the word out about all those changes? Radio's megaphone – especially as people get back into their old cars and their old habits – should become a go-to way to start remarketing and rebranding even the most heritage dealerships.
And because cars may rapidly become a haven of hygiene, consumers may find themselves spending even more time in their vehicles – not because of heavy traffic, but to insulate themselves from viruses, germs, bacteria and other invaders. Even before COVID-19, cars were already functioning as second offices and even dining rooms for many drivers. Imagine what will happen once America “re-opens.”
And the car may also become the way to see concerts in this post-coronavirus era. We may already be seeing the early signs of a new trend in Denmark, a country that has been vigilant about social distancing.
After all, many predict attending concerts and similar shows may be the last social events to return to some semblance of “normal.” Many in the music and concert industries believe it may be well into 2021 until these shows begin to resemble the experience we've come to know and (mostly) love.
Joe Spaulding heads up Boston's Boch Center that books two nice-sized theaters. As he explained to WBUR Radio:
That's why innovation will be so important in the post-COVID-19 environment we may be entering. If you've ever attended a drive-in movie theater, you instantly grasp the new Denmark business model..
As Nina Corcoran reported in a Consequence of Sound story, “Drive-In Concerts Are Now a Thing in Denmark.” Musician Mads Langer took the stage in front of an audience of 500 – cars, that is – drove up to enjoy the show, broadcast on an available FM frequency.
As Langer recounted the experience, “That feeling when you reunite with your audience although they were sitting safely in their cars.”
At least there wasn't any moshing.
Thanks to Denise Neal, Travis Heying and Jaime Green of the Wichita Eagle. And Steve Goldstein.
You can download the Capgemini study here.